Your Story Matters: Medical Students & Research

 YOUR STORY MATTERS 

SNMA Members in the Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP)

 

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Alanna Tisdale, MS4, Warren Alpert Medical School                

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Roger Murayi, MS3, Perelman School of Medicine

 

How did you become involved with SNMA?

RM: It started in undergrad when I joined the MAPS chapter. During junior and senior year I joined the executive board. There were not that many minority premeds in my particular year even though there was a decent black community (Washington University in Saint Louis). It was a great way to feel more connected to the minority premedical community. So when I got to medical school it was a natural progression to join SNMA.

AT: During our first year of medical school I become involved right away. I loved the idea that the group wanted to create physicians who are socially conscious. I was eager in learning how I could use my career as a physician to get back to the community.

How has SNMA influenced your medical school experience?

RM: SNMA had a huge influence in choosing where I wanted to go to medical school. I whittled it down to Harvard and Penn. The biggest difference that I noticed between the two schools was the strength of the SNMA chapters. At Penn it was big…it was a cohesive environment. I had a strong black community at Wash U and I wanted to recapitulate this in medical school as well.

AT: SNMA has been one of my favorite parts of medical school if not my favorite. It provides a great source of community. I attended three of the national conferences and it’s a nice opportunity when you realize that there are a number of medical students of color out there. I think sometimes at your institutions it feels like you are one of a very small pool. Seeing physicians of color was empowering and it made me feel that I could achieve great things as they have done before me. SNMA also helped me in terms of networking for residency. I made meaningful connections that are helping me now that I am on the interview trail. I know that I have secured several interviews at some programs as a result of these connections.

Tell us what contributed to your interest in research?

RM: For me it started early. My guidance counselor in high school advised me to apply for a summer program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) geared towards students interested in science. I spent my time working with mice, which I did not enjoy, but I got exposure to the process and to thinking about science. Through that program I learned about the Physician Scientist Training Program, a longitudinal program for minorities, geared towards increasing students interest in biomedical research. I eventually applied to the program and spent my high school and college summers doing research at different institutions around the country. It was good to meet other minority individuals who were interested in the same thing I was.

AT: I had a little bit of experience with research through completing my Masters of Public Health. Although, it was not the kind of work that would lead to a journal publication. The MRSP is my first official concrete research experience.

Why did you decide to take a year off from medical school to focus solely on research?

RM: This was a challenging personal decision for me. Do I want a basic science research career in my future? It is the question that has always been in the back of my mind with each of my research experiences. I want to go into neurosurgery so I wanted to think about research from this perspective. I sought to spend a year doing research in neurosurgery to decide for myself whether or not I want this for myself. So that was the impetus for doing this year in research. There is also the question of how well can you can really do basic science research when you are in neurosurgery. I think I am slowly garnering an answer to this question so we will see.

AT: I knew that I wanted to take a year of between 4th year and residency to do ophthalmology research. My advisor first told me of the MRSP. There were also a few people from my school who participated in the program and loved the experience. I also talked to recent participants of the program who were doing the same kind of work I wanted to do, and from what I was hearing it seemed like a good fit for me to do research at the NIH for a year.

Tell me more about the MRSP.

AT: In this program you get to focus solely on research for a year at the NIH. You choose a mentor (Principal Investigator) in any institute you are interested in. It is a great opportunity to work side by side with researchers who are leaders in their given field. I would say that a lot of people are very productive within this year. In the past, people have published papers, abstracts and even presented at prominent conferences. Personally, I believe it’s a great opportunity not only for your career but networking as well. For example, my mentor is Dr. Emily Chew, a clinician-scientist who is extremely successful. I met people (during my interview trail) from all over the country who know her just because she is so active within the field of ophthalmology. Moving forward in my career, I will definitely keep in touch with my mentor.

Besides research what other opportunities does MRSP offer?

RM: From a professional standpoint there are series of lectures (“Great Teachers Breakfast, Process of Discovery, and Clinical Teaching Rounds) where researchers tell us not only about their research but their career path and problems they faced. I think that is a powerful thing to listen to and be able to connect with. Socially, being in DC area with 53 other medical students interested in research provides a great dynamic.

Briefly tell us about the research projects you are working on at the NIH.

RM: I am working in the Surgical Neurology Branch. My main project relates to vasogenic edema in the brain. Patients who have tumors tend to have this type of edema, which increases morbidity and mortality. Patients are often on high doses of dexamethasone or Avastin (VEGF inhibitor). We study a rat model of vasogenic edema and try to understand what is occurring from a molecular standpoint. The goal is to understand molecular mechanisms to see if there is another target we can use to prevent or remove the edema in this patient population. The other project I am working on focuses on epilepsy. We look at human tissue samples of patients who have had retractable epilepsy and try to understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for development of epilepsy.

AT: So I do clinical research, specifically it’s a retrospective study. We are observing the relationship between calcium intake and the risk for macular degeneration. Another one of my projects deals with retinal imaging. We are studying drusen (deposits in the retina) and how it appears on imaging when it regresses.

What do you hope to gain from being a part of the MRSP? What is it like working at the NIH?

RM: Being here is a great example of people whom are neurosurgeons doing basic science research. It is not easy to find at other intuitions and here I found they do a better job of balancing research and clinical practice. It is good for me to see what it looks like to be able to balance both. Here, they still see patients but at the root they are doing basic science research and it is cool to see that manifest. I am finally working on a project that is brain related which was not the case with my previous research projects. I am getting a chance to be an independent investigative thinker. I have a project that is mine and I am essentially the one driving the direction of the project. Having this independence and scientific mindset has been challenging but a good thing for me.

AT: On a day-to-day basis, I am in frequent contact with our statistician to go over the data analysis. I also meet with my mentor weekly to go over the status of the projects that I am working on. Personally, I want to present my poster at The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology annual meeting, which is a prominent conference in the field of ophthalmology. It would be an honor and a great networking opportunity since I want to be an ophthalmologist. I want to publish a paper that I am currently working on. My goal for this year is to get a good understanding of what it is like to be a researcher from day to day. What it is like to balance that while being a clinician?

What do you do in free time?

AT: I love to cook and trying new recipes. Dancing is also something that I like to do. I was in a dance group in undergrad and now that I am in D.C. there are plenty of opportunities. Living in this area is amazing. I grew up in Connecticut and spent almost a decade in Rhode Island. D.C. is a very diverse place and I have had a lot of fun meeting people. This city offers so much to do. The Smithsonian’s museums are amazing and it’s free! There are festivals that go on as well. D.C. is really known for having a brunch culture and you can find any type of brunch. If you like the outdoors there are beautiful places to hike.

How will research fit into your career as a physician?

RM: I do not know, it is the reason why I am here. The one thing that I will say is that it is tough to really do basic science research. There is this disease of publish or perish in research. It destroys the ideals of research and scientific inquiry in a lot of ways. When you are so fixated on publishing it transforms the way you do research and it is less pure and less fun. Do I think I can put up with the reality of the research world while also balancing the reality of the neurosurgery clinical world?

 

What advice can you give to students who are unsure about taking a year off to pursue further studies (research, another degree…etc.)?

RM: Someone once told me that you really have to love the process. In medicine, when we talk about training there is too much of a focus of how long something will take. As if there is this nebulous purgatory of time that you have to sit and exist in before starting your life. Every year you grow as a physician and you see patients, expand knowledge, and reach milestones. We should recognize the process as a gradation of milestones.

AT: I would highly recommend! The people that I have known to take time off had a great opportunity to reflect on their career. The activities that you do during your time off will influence the rest of your career. I know that this year will make my career stronger. This program has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of ophthalmologists who will be really great mentors moving forward.

Anything else?

RM: I love SNMA! I think the conferences are one of the greatest things in the world and it’s so much fun!

AT: When you are at SNMA conferences, take the opportunity to take advantage of the networking, especially when they have the exhibitor’s fairs. I kept in touch with a woman from the exhibit and she said when I apply to let her know right away to make sure it gets reviewed. Another thing is the National Medical Association (NMA) convention. They have an ophthalmology program for medical students interested in this field. I met people who provided really good advice and reached out to their colleagues on my behalf.

 

Electronic applications for the MRSP are due January 15, 2016. If you are interested in applying or for more information, please contact Mr. Kenny Williams or Mrs. Tonya Shackelford at MRSP@mail.nih.gov

Comfort Elumogo, Publication committee co-chair, conducted these interviews. If you would like to be considered for our next Your Story Matters publication please email publications@snma.org

 

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About the Author: publications@snma.org

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